Chandigarh's invisible entrepreneurs: The open-air artists with scissors

  • Aarish Chhabra, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Jun 08, 2015 09:09 IST

Devi Chand was 15 when he started his small business in a rehri market where now stands SD College in Sector 32. He is now 55, shifted across the roundabout under a huge mango tree many years ago, and is no short of a legend, particularly among the bearded brethren of the city.

"No one can trim and shape a beard the way Devi can," Balvir Singh, a district court staffer, stands testimony, waiting for his turn. The waiting list has already stretched to seven as the sun grows a tad calmer by 5pm on a Saturday. Devi says he takes a maximum of 25 customers a day, 35-40 if son-cum-trainee Ajay is helping. Clients include senior government officers and rich businessmen, "who come in very fancy cars and then sit under this tree for a trim", he chuckles. With trimming, shaving and haircut all priced at Rs 30 each, he makes Rs 30,000 in a good month. Profit margin is nearly 90%.

He is one of the 1,000-odd such barbers in the city. And no matter which variety of tree they use as their makeshift business roof, these barbers have a uniform branding in the city's mind - UMT, acronym for 'Under the Mango Tree'. Most of them serve a dedicated clientele that is either from the lower economic strata, or those who are not too finicky about hygiene and can't much for the fanciness of the air-conditioned salons that now dot the city. Rates range from Rs 10 to 30 for basics, though some provide face massages too at an added price.

Devi is a man of the world, shy to be photographed but nonchalantly forthcoming about his life and trade. Son of a labourer from Kambali village in SAS Nagar, he says he picked up the "scissor trade" as he saw "a bit of artistry" in it. He used to charge 2 aana (1/8th of a rupee) for a shave, and chavanni (25 paise) for a haircut in the 70s, he smiles.

Operating without any licence, the barbers have a union. "There were surveys in 1996 and 2009, but no licences as such have been provided. Around 2,200 people working as barbers, cobblers and other small jobs were identified," says union secretary Mian Rehmatullah, 52, who has his set-up under a large peepal tree in Industrial Area-2 for the past three decades.

Mayor Poonam Sharma says she has already framed the rules to implement the Street Vendor Act 2014, "but we are waiting for master guidelines from the union government." Adds the Congress leader, "Even in places like South Korea or in India at Port Blair, I saw barbers following a dress code, having proper vends and licences. I want that system here and end harassment of all vendors, but the government is just sitting on the matter; maybe because the UPA passed the Act?"

As for the trade, ask Rehmatullah if it has seen any change over the years, and he says, "Our clientele has actually increased as more people move to cities and need affordable hair care. Plus, we have old-timers who won't risk going anywhere else. The barber-customer relationship is part of our culture." He lives in Colony Number 4.

His son Gulbasar Mohammad, 33, runs his trade near Elante Mall and now gets workers from the mall too as clients. "Work shifts start at 7am, so I set up by 5.30 these days," he says. He says he does not intend to start a shop: "This is our style and trademark. Why take the risk of changing all that? My children, though, would study, unlike me, and decide what they want to do."

Most of the barbers close down at sunset, as temporary lights seem an avoidable expense. Tuesdays are usually off, or they open for a couple of hours, given the religious beliefs of not getting hair cut on the day.

At Devi's vend, on the waiting list is Sergeant Arun Kumar from the air force quarters nearby. His son Medhansh is perhaps Devi's youngest customer at 5. "I used to go to a barber shop in Sector 46, but the hygiene was a concern. Here, in the open, with simple, clean instruments, I feel more confident," he makes a case against the popular notion of such barbers being unhygienic.

Devi is anyway too proud of his trade to take any criticism too seriously. "Find me one barber in the city who can properly trim a beard the way I can, and I'd shave my moustache off," he smirks. Four customers nod in solidarity, looking at his up-twirled moustache.

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